THE message has been loud and clear for years: when shopping in the entry-level segment of the market, South Africans want as much car as possible, for as little as possible. This trend has seen locals largely shun the trendy, modern superminis so beloved by European and Asian markets in favour of older-tech, less sophisticated, but larger cars. Sacrificing some refinement and style, it seems, is not a major obstacle to sales success. In this segment, where shoppers can generally afford only one car for the household, power, space and cheap running costs are the order of the day.
It’s nothing new – the CitiGolf and Tazz both sold in large numbers right to the end of their model cycles, while far more modern vehicles such as the Toyota Aygo and Fiat Panda have never gained a strong foothold. Since the demise of the Tazz, however, Toyota has not had a strong contender in this segment. The previous-generation Yaris offered too little power and space at its price and soon started creeping up the pricing ladder (it was imported from Japan).
In Toyota’s absence, a number of manufacturers have done brisk business with their offerings. Ford offers its Indian-built Figo (a redevelopment of the previous Fiesta), Renault has the locally made Sandero and Volkswagen, of course, has developed the previous-generation Polo into a budget contender that currently is South Africa’s top-selling car.
Now, finally, Toyota has released a competitor. Built in India but developed considerably further for the South African market, the Etios needs to win back some volume. Given the brand’s significant South African footprint and its strong relationship with fleet operators, we think volume is a given but, for the private car buyer, the question remains: is the new Etios as good a buy as you’d expect? There’s one way to find out – a battle with the formidable Vivo.
Tested here in range-topping Xs specification, this Etios hatch is arguably the most attractive model in the new range (there is also a saloon). That said, it is certainly no beauty, and a number of testers and passers-by compared its aesthetics with those of the Sandero. Most buyers, however, won’t care and will be more interested in the fact that it’s got a relatively long wheelbase (2 460 mm) that translates into plentiful rear legroom and a wide track (generous shoulderroom). For what it’s worth, Xs trim brings exterior ornamentation in the form of chrome garnish on the colour-coded grille and hatch, as well as colour-coding of the door handles and mirror housings. You don’t get alloy wheels, but the plastic covers are quite attractive. Front foglamps are standard.
Although the Vivo can’t hide its Polo roots, it arguably doesn’t need to. It still looks modern and, when compared with the Etios, a more upmarket product. Of course, this is a direct result of the Polo having been developed for a sophisticated European market.
The Vivo has a slightly longer wheelbase (by 2 mm) and a wider track than the Etios, so it’s by no means cramped inside. The Etios has more rear legroom, while the Vivo counters by offering a larger boot (232 versus 200 dm3).
FEATURES VS. SOPHISTICATION
Move inside and the Etios’s sporty design theme may come as a surprise considering the conservativism of the exterior. The front seats are quasi-bucket items (without the side bolstering) with integrated headrests. There’s a nice three-spoke steering wheel, quirky rotating-ball ventilation outlets and central instrumentation. Our test unit was also fitted with the most expensive of the three audio-system options (R4 727). This double-DIN system (ready for digital radio) does add a measure of tech-appeal to the interior, which is quite welcome because the good first impression does start to wane once you poke around.
The central instrumentation binnacle received a near-universal thumbs-down from the test team. Not only do we not agree with statements that the central positioning of the instruments makes them easier to read, but the appearance of the Etios’s dials can be described as cheap.
It is still very early in this car’s model life to make broad statements about the Etios’s quality levels and likely durability, but we do have some concerns. The upholstery on the front seats already showed signs of bagging. And, most importantly, the carpeting appears sub-standard with plenty of give underfoot. Furthermore, the facia is constructed from a staggering number of different types and grades of hard plastic.
Dig even deeper and further traces of cost-cutting are disappointingly obvious when parked next to the Vivo. Lift the bonnet and the lack of paint and noticeable overspray (underside of the bonnet and the engine bay) make a poor impression.
That said, the interior of the Etios did not once rattle during our test routine and generally feels robust, if not as substantial as the Vivo. This impression is reflected in the mass of the cars. The Etios tips the scales at a feathery 914 kg compared with the Vivo’s more meaty 1 078 kg – a difference of 164 kg.
From behind the steering wheel, the Vivo is a significantly more upmarket product. The seats are more supportive and comfortable (and the upholstery of better quality), the steering wheel adjusts for rake and reach (compared with rake for the Etios), and the facia moulding is of the soft-touch variety – a really impressive achievement at this price level. Overall fit and finish are simply on different levels compared with the Etios, with the only real let-down being the interior door trim, which is made entirely of hard plastic; the Etios offers cloth inserts.
In terms of features, the Etios has the edge. It offers air-conditioning, power steering, dual front airbags, manual headlamp levelling and power windows, while the Vivo lacks the latter two items. You have to spend extra in both cars to get audio and alarm systems.
POWER AND ECONOMY
One of the Etios’s main selling points besides its space (and badge) is the fact that it offers a 1,5-litre engine in a market that features smaller-capacity units. Given the distances that South Africans tend to cover (and the power-sapping altitude of the Reef), local buyers are notoriously in favour of larger, more powerful engines.
The Etios’s 16-valve engine is apparently all-new and features an all-aluminium cylinder block, forged crankshaft and connecting rods, an electronically controlled throttle and engine mountings designed to counter vibration and noise. It develops a class-leading 66 kW at 5 600 r/min and 132 N.m at 3 000 r/min. The engine is mated with a slick, robust-feeling five-speed manual gearbox.
This drivetrain is arguably the best part of the Etios package. The engine is willing to rev, yet has enough punch low down the rev range, and the gearbox makes shifting a pleasure. The only fly in the ointment is a flare in engine speed when the throttle is released and the clutch is depressed for a gearchange. The punchy engine and slick gearbox combine to make the Etios the best in this segment from a performance perspective – we achieved a best 0-100 km/h time of 11,1 seconds, compared with the Vivo’s more leisurely 13,22 seconds. It needs to be pointed out, however, that the Etios is the noisier car at cruising speed, with the Vivo’s extra sound-deadening coming into play here.
With only 55 kW on offer, the Vivo was never going to match the Etios in terms of sprinting ability. But, it does offer the same amount of torque (developed slightly higher up the rev range) and the engine is refined. It is also geared for cruising, so long-distance driving is quite pleasurable. The five-speed box has that typical notchy, direct shift quality that is typical of most Volkswagens. In terms of fuel economy, there is little to choose between the two. The Vivo’s smaller engine has to work harder, so its higher fuel-index figure (7,44 litres/100 km versus 7,2 litres/100 km) is to be expected. Both cars have 45-litre fuel tanks.
RIDE AND HANDLING
With its higher ride height (for the rougher roads of developing nations) and softer suspension, the Etios is a comfortable everyday drive. There’s generous pliancy in the suspension, so even larger bumps are ironed out with confidence. Of course, this softness does translate into some roll in the corners, but that’s of little importance in this segment. The sensation is heightened, however, by the elevated seating position. The Etios has an electric power-steering (EPS) system that offers impressive weighting, accuracy and feel for such a design, especially when compared with the small Korean cars in this price segment.
The Vivo may be bested in terms of pure ride quality, but the difference is not vast and, whatever it loses to the Etios in that regard, is regained through its quieter cabin, more comfortable seats and a better driving position. Most testers also commented that the Vivo felt more stable and predictable than the Etios when corners were taken with more enthusiasm.
In terms of safety specification, the Etios outscores the Vivo by virtue of featuring standard ABS with EBD. You have to fork out an extra R2 250 for ABS when buying a Vivo, and it’s certainly worth it. But, even with ABS, neither car boasts particularly impressive 100 km/h-to-rest emergency stopping times
(3,17 seconds for the Vivo and 3,11 seconds for the Etios). Should the worst happen, both cars have dual front airbags. Neither car has Isofix child-
The Vivo is the more sophisticated car. It feels more substantial than the Etios and more refined. But, at this price level, the argument is never that clear-cut. Being the best doesn’t necessarily translate to being the best buy. Depending on the eagerness of the VW salesperson in question, you’d have to spend between R5 000 and R10 000 more on the Vivo to get it to similar specification of the Etios, with the most important (and potentially deal-clinching) items being the Toyota’s standard service plan (two years/30 000 km) and ABS. The cheapest service plan available for the Vivo costs R7 087 (60 000 km). Then again, you have to keep in mind that the Vivo is locally built (parts availability and, potentially, cost) and that it has longer service intervals (15 000 km versus the Etios’s disappointing 10 000 km).
It is our opinion that the Vivo could be worth the extra money in the long term, but these days the choice may be a luxury most South Africans can’t afford. The Etios may lack the polish of its competitor here, and there are question marks over the durability of its interior trim, but it offers a lot of car for the money and a wide dealership and servicing network. It’s unlikely to fail in terms of Toyota’s volume aspirations.
In conclusion then, if these are the two cars on your shortlist and you can afford either, we suggest spending extra and getting the Vivo. But, we suspect the Vivo may not be the Etios’s biggest problem. In our opinion, the best car in this segment, and the best value, remains Ford’s Figo.